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It’s time to cut our darlings

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King urges writers to kill their darlings even when it breaks their heart. If anyone has been following my Instagram stories, you’ll have seen me cutting thousands and thousands of words from a memoir I’m revising: we’re down 27,000 words and counting! People (many of them, horrified) have asked how I know what to cut. For me, trimming a manuscript is part instinct and part pragmatism. Let’s talk pragmatism.

Give those words a trim

#1 Write your jacket copy and index card your themes


In order to know which scenes are superfluous, we have to know (really, really know) the story we want to tell. Most of us think we know what we want to write, and then we end up writing so much that we actually obscure our project’s themes. This is why I begin hefty revisions by going back to the beginning and doing these two things:

  • Write the jacket copy for your book. Doing this will force you to isolate your book’s plot and themes.
  • On an index card, write out your project’s four main themes. Use a single word instead of sentences. (For example, “Jealousy” instead of “In-law/fiancé issues.”) Keep this index card on your desk while you’re revising.

#2 Make your scenes defend themselves

Put your scenes on trial in front of a jury of delete buttons. Ask this of your scenes:

  • Are you contributing in a clear way to the four themes on my index card?
  • If you’re not supporting my book’s themes, are you developing my character’s emotional journey in a way that supports my book’s main themes?
  • Are you there because you’re showing off some research I did (that took me a long time to do)?
  • Are you there because I think the writing in this section is beautiful, and even though the 6-page dream sequence isn’t necessary, it’s just too good to cut?
  • Are you there because I thought all books in 2020 had to have a prologue?
  • Are you there because you represent an in-joke that only three readers will pick up on?

If the scene doesn’t do one of the first two things on this list, say bye-bye to it.

#3 Stitch up what you cut

So you’ve cut a bunch of scenes, and now you have all of these gaping holes in your manuscript. Ask yourself these questions before you stitch them up:

What did I write in the thing I cut?
What should I have written?
What do I need to write, now?

Some considerations as you decide what new text to write.

  • Was the cut scene administrative? Did it exist solely to show that Person A made it to This Place using This Form of Transportation? If so, consider using a space to delineate a passage of time and just open the next scene in the new place. And remember: creative writing doesn’t need the admin. If you say that Person A went to the public library in a spaceship, the reader will believe you if you have developed the character in such a way that we can guess the kind of books they’re going to check out.
  • Did you cut the scene because it was funny, but too long? Maybe you need more humor– in smaller doses– throughout the rest of the book.
  • Did you cut the scene because it was too long? Good! What was the main point (emotional or plot related) that you were trying to communicate, and how else can you do that?

    #4 Give your deleted words a home

    Sometimes we cut scenes that absolutely need to go. Sometimes we edit on a day when we have low blood sugar and mercury is in retrograde and we make a big mistake. Don’t permanently delete anything as you’re cutting: create a word document where you house all your deleted scenes. I like to create a title (in bold) for what the scene was about, and put the cut scene just underneath that, making it easier to scan for content when I go back.

    Your deleted scenes will serve you in some way down the road. You might turn to them for inspiration while drafting off-the-book pieces, you might transform that in-joke into a wedding toast, or you might just look back when your book is published and think, thank goodness I left those scenes out!


COSTALEGRE is coming out in paperback with a brand new cover! The School Library Journal selected COSTALEGRE as one of 9 adult books with teen appeal, so consider giving this illustrated mother/daughter story to a young person in your life. Or give it to yourself—take a trip to the jungles of western Mexico for only $14.67! It’s also available in Spanish:

Summer reading season is here!


What I’m reading now

Alexandra Chang’s debut, DAYS OF DISTRACTION is a deeply felt story of a young tech writer coming to terms with misogyny and racism in her industry, and in her own relationship with a Caucasian man her Chinese father calls “your bonehead.” The New York Times Book Review calls it “quietly funny and thunderingly wise.” Bonus points for this book taking readers from San Francisco to Ithaca to Hong Kong without any mask required.

July workshops and lectures

  • July 7th: 7pm ET in conversation with SCORPIONFISH author Natalie Bakopoulos at Literati via Zoom
  • July 12th: 11:15am ET I’ll be doing the endnote for the Southhampton Writers Conference virtually, with lots of big picture advice for emerging writers
  • July 14th: 1pm ET Launch day for COSTALEGRE with “A Mighty Blaze”
  • July 22: 7pm I’ll be in conversation with Julie Orringer about the real people who are in both A FLIGHT PORTFOLIO and COSTALEGRE
  • July 29: 7pm ET How to get out of a writing rut and back onto the page– a craft class for Grub Street and The Muse!

More info on events here.

Got a writing or publishing question that’s keeping you from sleeping? Is something wrong with your manuscript that you just can’t figure out? Worried that everyone is lying to you when they say your story’s good? Courtney does 60 or 90 minute consults with writers at all levels.
Write thequerydoula@gmail.com for more information.

Positive reviews of author’s books on Amazon and Goodreads actually help independent bookstores because they bring books (especially those published by independent presses!) up in the rankings, which signals booksellers to keep them stocked on shelves.Thank you for the time and effort it takes to leave a nice review for my books and my colleagues’!

Copyright © 2020 Courtney Maum, All rights reserved.